EN Japanese Brasserie
435 Hudson Street, New York NY 10014 (b/n Leroy and Morton; map); 212-647-9196; enjb.com
Veggie Options: 3 small plates, 2 tofu, 1 salads, 6 vegetables, 2 rice, 2 sushi rolls
Cost: $11-16 per plate
Tofu-lovers take note: if there is anything to be said about the swanky and spacious West Village spot EN Japanese Brasserie, it's that the freshly made tofu may surpass all other tofu that you've ever had. But the restaurant is no vegetarian haven—of the handful of meatless dishes on the rest of the menu, any containing dashi get eighty-sixed for the inclusion of fish in broth. So we set out to see just how well a vegetarian can do at this trendy Japanese spot.
The prices are a bit cheaper at lunch than at dinner, but hardly anything on the lunch menu is vegetarian, so we went ahead and sprung for dinner. (That said, if you just want to stop in to see what all the tofu hype is about, lunch is the way to go.)
When our tofu arrived it was clear that all the praise we'd heard was justified. The tofu is made in-house every hour and a half, and you can still taste the freshness of the soy it had just been made from. Scoop the silky smooth tofu into your own bowl and drizzle it with a bit of soy sauce (but be sure to mention to your server that you're vegetarian to ensure that all sauces you're brought are fish-broth-free). For $11 at dinner or $8 at lunch, this dish alone will justify your visit.
The vegetable tempura ($16) was among the best we've ever had. The tempura batter is quite light, and the assortment of local Greenmarket-purchased vegetables are fried until just tender. The best part was alternately dipping the tempura in the wasabi and yuzu salts to see which best complemented each vegetable—or you can throw caution to the wind and roll everything in both.
That said, our meal wasn't without hiccups.
The yama-imo isobe-age (fried mountain yam and edamame, $11) looked like a good bet from the outside—fried to a golden brown and wrapped in a savory sheet of nori. Inside was a gooey white paste of yam studded with large, firm edamame beans—a combination that we found texturally awkward and, worse, without flavor. The natural sea salt accompanying it did little to boost the overall blandness of the filling.
The fresh young bamboo shoots sashimi ($12), was recommended as a seasonal special, but it also fell a little short. Perhaps we should have realized that you can only do so much with chilled pieces of bamboo, but at least the dipping sauce made up for some of the lack of flavor, and the artichoke-like texture was interesting.
In an attempt to end on a good note we ordered the Oba Sorbet ($8), and it delivered. Brandy-soaked grapefruit surrounds the single scoop of refreshing shiso lemon sorbet. The tartness of the grapefruit is mellowed by the brandy, which in turn picks up the sweet acidity shed by the grapefruit. The bright citrus sorbet offsets it all, and if you get all three components in one bite, the textures and flavors come together in perfect harmony.
In the end, EN's vegetarian options are a bit hit or miss. The hits are really big hits, but the misses can be disappointing, considering the not-so-cheap prices. The atmosphere and excellent service garner at least a few points and the overall experience is worthwhile—so long as you tread the menu with caution. Get the tofu and the tempura and you're in for a treat.